Thursday, September 29, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-XXV (Going West in America-IV)

The drive to Los Angeles was supposed to be a long one. About five and a half hours. So after saying good bye to Robyn and Breezy, we started early, just after breakfast. Pappoo took his Mercedes which was more comfortable. The journey is along a motorway which passes through mostly desert landscape. In a couple of places one is reminded of the movie Mackenna's Gold, the only difference being that one is driving in a Mercedes rather than riding a horse! It is totally dry and barren. There are in many places lake beds with layers of salt. We stopped a couple of times to have some coffee.
For lunch we had some Kentucky Fried Chicken and coke, the usual American junk food! We reached Los Angeles in late afternoon and drove straight to Robyn's parent's house which is located in the famous Orange County. It is supposed to be among the posh areas of LA. Robyn's parents were happy to see me and Pappoo and insisted that I stay with them for a few days. Due to paucity of time, I could only stay for two nights as my tickets had been pre-booked. After an early super, Pappoo took me for a round of LA. He wanted me to see the hill top Hollywood sign and take a round of the Walkway of Fame. It was an enjoyable ride through Hollywood area. We stopped near the Walkway of Fame and saw a number of stars which are embedded on the Walkway. We returned home early as next day we were supposed to spend the whole day in Disneyland. Before going to bed I tried to call some of Kashmiri friends who were working in LA but had no luck.
We started for Disneyland very early as we had only one day and Pappoo wanted me to see most of the rides which, according to him was the major attraction in the recreation park. It normally starts at 8 and usually people queue up even earlier. Luckily there was not much rush and we got nearby parking. We bought two full day passes and went in. The first thing was to try as many rides as possible. There are so many attractive and varied rides that it is virtually impossible to try all in a single day. This is also because at each ride there is a long line for entry. We first went to Space Mountain. It is a ride on a roller coaster in total darkness through virtual outer space. One sits on an airplane type chair and seat belts are fastened. The ride suddenly starts with a big jerk and one is hurtled through space. The ride is in some places very scary and one can hear the screams of other riders!
Next we went to Splash Mountain where the ride is in a boat which goes through different water channels and finally splashes down a mountain waterfall. It is quite dramatic and really enjoyable. Then there was a ride through some sort of a Ghost area. This was really scary through a water channel going through tunnels with scary faces appearing off and on. One ride was through a jungle but again on a boat. There were alligators in the water. All the rides have such a realistic feel that one really believes these to be true! There was one ride under water in a submarine. It also gave good feel and one could see lot of marine life. There was a ride on a train going up and down a mountainside. The organisers have thought of every conceivable way of giving rides up and down. After the rides we went to see some of the typical Disneyland features such as Micky Mouse, Snow White, and the Fairyland and so on.
However, there were two items which Pappoo was very keen for me to see. One was the Cinema on a circular screen. It is inside a dome shaped hall where people stand holding railings placed in the centre.
All around is a cinema screen which becomes alive and one feels to be part of the scene. The other was the 3-D Imax Theatre. We had earlier seen one in Grand Canyon but the one in Disneyland was quite impressive. There was a film on wild life. One had to wear 3-D glasses. One could see sharks jumping out of the screen and sometimes there were wasps buzzing over one's head! The most common thing in every spot in Disneyland is the souvenir shops. One can buy souvenirs in the form of t-shirts, mugs, and so on. I fact replicas of everything on show there. It is a big commercial enterprise! Finally we took a mono-rail ride to our parking lot and drove back home. Next morning my flight was quite early and Pappoo too had to leave back for Lake Havasu. I would have to take a taxi to LA Airport which was about an hour's drive.
Suddenly, I remembered one Kashmiri Autar Kaul, whom I had met in Jammu in my office. He had come for some posters of Khirbhavani which our department had printed. I had given him a few and he had given his visiting card. He was working in LA. I called him late in the evening. He was thrilled to know that I was in LA. He wanted me to stay with him but I told him that I was flying back to New York in the morning. I asked him if he could drop me at the airport in the morning at seven. He immediately agreed to do so. In fact, he had been praising my behaviour in Jammu so much to his family that he made me talk to his wife on phone who too wanted me to stay with them. I promised to do that on my next visit. Kaul Sahab came in the morning at seven and dropped me at the LA Airport. It was for the second time that a Kashmiri Pandit had helped and guided me outside Kashmir in spite of the troubled situation back home. I had quite often experienced abroad that people from many nationalities who are normally at loggerheads in their home countries are quite friendly in foreign countries! Kashmiris have all along possessed a composite culture and the cataclysmic events of last couple of decades have failed to totally break the social bonds.

(To be continued…)

Monday, September 26, 2011

"Dog's Own Country!"

The speed, at which the dog population is growing in Kashmir, may soon make it outnumber the local human population. It is estimated that the number of these animals has already crossed two hundred thousand. Many theories are being advanced for this unprecedented increase in the population of these canines in Kashmir and especially, the city of Srinagar.
Every other day there is an article in the local dailies about this menace. Hundreds have been bitten by these stray animals that have now become extremely bold and aggressive and move in flocks of twenty or more at a time. There have been many cases of rabies. Some columnists have stated that the reason for increase has been the corresponding increase in human population. Srinagar used to be a city of a hundred thousand people.
Now, it is a buzzing metro of over million and a half people. Accordingly, the dogs which numbered few thousand have grown to over a couple of hundred thousand. It has also been said that the change in life style is responsible for such a mushroom growth of canines. Lavish marriages resulting in huge amounts of non-vegetarian food waste has also been held responsible for increase in the population of these once useful scavengers of the society. Once welcome natural scavengers have become a deadly menace for the society. In earlier times, the municipal authorities used to ensure culling of their excessive population.
However, due to the intervention of some "Animal Lover's Society", the authorities are unable to curtail the growing menace. These so called "Animal Lovers" are the crazy followers of a deranged and frustrated lady animal lover! One fails to understand why these people have love of dogs only? There are many other animals which are culled if these pose a threat to humans.
During last couple of decades, the wild life has menacingly grown in the forests of Kashmir. Black bears and sometimes even leopards are posing grave threat to human life. In contrast to the treatment given to the dogs in the residential areas, the wild animals are declared vermin and people are allowed to shoot these. In recent times, due to the outbreak of bird flue millions of chickens have been culled. However, no one raises the question of cruelty to animals in regard to these actions of killing of birds or even wild animals.
A number of other suggestions have been advanced to limit the population of dogs. Sometime back a person had offered to act as a pied piper to these stray dogs and he had declared that against a payment of about rupees thirty crores, he would rid Kashmir of this menace. The news story carried on for sometime and then suddenly disappeared.
The ultimate solution presented was the sterilization of the dog population. It was proposed to set up dog ponds where these canines would be sterilised. During the course of a public interest litigation, one of the judges posed a question whether the dogs would stop biting humans after sterilisation? It is reported that the municipal authorities had resorted to earlier method of limiting the dog population but they were stopped by the police.
In fact, the provincial administrative head had declared that the rabid dogs would be shot at sight but had to quietly forget his bold pronouncement due to some unexplained reasons. Probably, he had forgotten that in Kashmir one can shoot a human being without any questions being asked but one cannot shoot a dog!
Recently, the municipal authorise have put up a comprehensive proposal amounting to over rupees one thousand crores to take care of this menace. However, there is no time limit given for ending the menace. It may take quite sometime before the dog population is completely sterilised.
There cannot be anything worse to show the lopsided state planning. Government is unable to provide minimum healthcare to Kashmir's human population. However, it may spend a thousand crores to save the menacing dog population! Apart from lopsided planning, it is also rumoured that the entire deliberately created menace revolves round this massive expenditure involved in curbing the problem.
Some vested interests are hoping for a massive cut from this huge project! In fact, these people are supposed to be the real culprits in allowing uncontrolled growth of this menace. There has been a suggestion to export these dogs to Philippines where these are supposed to be a delicacy! Well, whatever is behind this new threat to the already harassed population of Kashmir, there is urgent need to take it seriously before the local population is outnumbered?
The recent ultimatum given by the residents of Batamaloo may in the end turn out to be the only solution where the local population regardless of legal or other consequences takes law into their hands to curb the menace by any means available to them! Unfortunately, all the concerned authorities seem to have been benumbed and no concrete action is forthcoming. Unless something is done urgently to curb the menace, Kashmir may soon turn into, "Dog's Own Country!"

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-XXIV (Going West in America-III)

Las Vegas is a dream city for the gamblers but others also can enjoy the plenty of entertainment available day and night. Pappoo had booked a double room for us in Hotel/Casino Luxor. He got a special deal of $ 45 per night which by any standards is quite cheap. In order to attract people, Las Vegas offers special prices. Tickets from all over the world are quite cheap. Stay and food is probably the cheapest! The only thing from which the resort earns is gambling. Thousands of slot machines and all other gambling joints. Pappoo had been coming quite often here for spending a week end. However, he had a principle. Enjoy the stay, the food, and the entertainment but never gamble! So we stuck to the principle and had two enjoyable days!
The drive to Las Vegas is long and monotonous. Pappoo took his Mercedes. It was more comfortable and faster. The drive goes through some mountains and then mostly through a desert like country. In fact, some times the drive became so monotonous that Pappoo started feeling sleepy. We stopped for coffee on the way. I had an interesting incident in the roadside café. Pappoo asked me which size coffee I would like. On my asking for a medium, he wanted me to be sure? I insisted and lo and behold, I got a huge coffee. After that incident I always asked for the smallest one! Later on in another café, I asked for a small one and was handed over a good sized cup. On my ascertaining from the girl about the small coffee, she said this is the smallest they have! During the drive we saw vast stretches of dry lake beds with layers of salt. We reached Las Vegas in the afternoon and went straight to our Hotel Luxor.
It is in the form of an Egyptian Pyramid. They have huge statues outside and inside it gives feel of being in Pharaoh's land! The Hotel is so huge that there are 26 counters for check in of guests in the reception. In fact, after seeing some more hotels, I told Pappoo that these were Casino Cities instead of Casino Hotels. After getting our smart electronic key, we went straight to our room on the eighth floor. Being tired by the journey in the hot desert, we went to sleep for a couple of hours. In the evening, we had a shower and then after some tea and snacks started our exploration.
First we visited different areas of the Hotel itself. It is huge and one could get lost in it. There are dozens of slot machines everywhere. There are many eating joints and restaurants. There are also some shows going on in different parts. Most of the staff is dressed in Egyptian style of ancient days. One is literally transported in imagination to the days of Pharaohs! We had dinner in one of the good restaurants and then went out to watch a show on the roadside near another casino where pirates attack a ship. The show is dramatic with lot of fireworks going all round. Next morning we got up quite late. After breakfast we decided to visit some more casinos. There is one called Caesar's Palace. It is totally in Roman style with statues of famous Romans from the glorious days of Roman history in different parts. There is a shopping arcade with an artificial blue sky with moving clouds on the top. While walking through the arcade one gets an impression of being outside under a blue sky with some moving clouds! In a number of places there are fountains with statues around these. In one such square, we saw all of a sudden the statues come to life and start talking to each other.
These statues are of grey colour resembling polished stone. It was very eerie to see these stone statues talking and moving their arms and heads! After few minutes these again became still and were hard as stone! It is truly a marvel of modern technology. In the evening, Pappoo had obtained tickets for an evening Cabaret show in one of the casinos. It is supposed to be a very famous Cabaret. We got some good seats and enjoyed the hour long show. We had a round of some other casinos. It is impossible to see everything in Las Vegas in a matter of couple of days. It is an amazing city of entertainment. However, we stuck to our principle of good food, entertainment programmes but no gambling!
Next morning, we again got up leisurely, packed our bags, and checked out right from the room itself. There is a system where under through the room TV you can get your bill and check out without going back to the reception desk. The credit card is automatically debited with the amount which we were supposed to pay for our stay. Pappoo wanted me to see the Stratosphere tower and have lunch in the restaurant on top of it. It was then the highest spot in Las Vegas. One could have a panoramic view of the whole city. We could also see the Las Vegas airport and there were planes landing and taking off regularly. Lunch was quite tasty and in the cool of the air-conditioned restaurant sitting on top of the world, it was really enjoyable and was a grand finale to our Las Vegas trip. Journey back to Lake Havasu was monotonous except for a short coffee break on the way. Next day we took rest and made preparations for a five hour long trip to Los Angeles day after. We would be staying with Robyn's parents for two nights and I would be flying off from Los Angeles to New York for my journey back home via Gibraltar.
(To be continued…)

Monday, September 19, 2011

Physical isolation breeds alienation

Before 1947, Kashmir was connected to Central Asia and beyond apart from various parts of the sub-continent. In those days, caravans would be coming and going to Yarqand, Kashgar, and even Tashkent. There was no ban on travelling to all parts of the globe even though the travel was slow and difficult. But now Kashmiris have been living in a virtual prison in physical terms. There is only one entry and exit through Delhi. Such a situation makes local people claustrophobic and is one of the main factors for alienation of the people. People cannot even fly directly to Saudi Arabia for performing Hajj as is possible from other metros. Speaking during the inauguration of the recently held 9th Annual Convention of the ATOAI (Adventure Tour Operators Association of India), Captain Gopinath, Chairman of Deccan 360 giving his assessment stated that one of the main causes of alienation of Kashmiris has been lack of connectivity between various remote parts of the state. He offered to set up helicopter and small aircraft air services to remote valleys in Jammu & Kashmir including Ladakh.
It is true that there has been alienation between different inaccessible parts of the state especially in winters when all these areas become totally landlocked. Being landlocked in these remote parts during severe winters not only causes great inconvenience and hardship but also psychologically causes lot of depression. Captain Gopinath felt that with air connection through small turbo-prop aircraft requiring simple grass strips, all these areas could be thrown open to tourism apart from providing various life saving essential services to the local population. The state government operates a courier service through Air Force aircraft during winter. However, the proposal of starting such an air service to different parts of the state has been in the pipeline for a long time. In fact, the helicopters purchased by the state government sometime back with the setting up of a civil aviation department were precisely for this purpose. Unfortunately, these have mostly been used for ferrying politicians and officials. In the recent times, there has again been a proposal to start a state level airline for connecting inaccessible areas. However, it is not known as to at what stage the proposal is? The offer given by Captain Gopinath is worth considering as he has declared in his speech that he will not be looking for any state subsidy.
The question of connectivity had risen during the course of discussing various difficulties faced in the development and promotion of adventure tourism which is usually more pronounced in remote regions of the Himalaya. In fact, connecting remote and inaccessible areas by air should be the priority of the state government not because of tourism but for allowing access to the people living in these areas to various essential services including specialised healthcare. Development of tourism would be an added advantage accruing from such a project. This will also generate employment opportunities.
As already mentioned in the beginning of this article, apart from the lack of connectivity of different areas of the state, Jammu & Kashmir also suffers from lack of connectivity with the outside world. While talking of connectivity for development of tourism, the first requirement is the overall connectivity of the state to the global air routes. Even in the best of times, the number of foreign tourists visiting Kashmir was less than 5% of the total foreign arrivals in India. The main cause was the lack of connectivity of Kashmir to international air routes. All foreign tourists intending to visit Kashmir had to take a domestic flight from Delhi and pay additional air fare which could be easily avoided if Kashmir was on international air map! After umpteen promises, the Government of India had finally declared Srinagar as an International Airport but the single weekly flight started to Dubai was discontinued hardly after six months or so and the reason given in the Parliament was that the flight was not commercially viable. There cannot be a greater lie than this!
There seem to have been some other reasons than economics in discontinuing the flight. Let us forget tourism and consider the overall psychological impact of this "joke" played on Kashmiris. It has generated more alienation from the mainstream! Captain Gopinath appeared to be very much speaking the truth in regard to lack of internal connectivity. It is imperative for the Government of India to end Kashmir's physical isolation by starting direct flights to at least Middle East, Central Asia, and South East Asia, (all short-haul flights) if not to Europe and America. This would be in addition to removing the lack of connectivity within the state itself. One hopes someone is listening and that the "Interlocutors" prescribing medicines for all ills of Kashmir do not miss this ailment of physical isolation!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Stop Politicising Tourism!

While inaugurating the 9th Convention of the ATOAI (Adventure Tour Operators Association of India), Omar Abdullah, the State Chief Minister admitted that earlier they had been making the mistake of mixing tourism with the prevalent situation in Kashmir. Politicians have been invariably equating greater tourism arrivals with the return of normal situation in the valley. It is known all over the world that there are political problems in Kashmir. The Chief Minister himself has been repeatedly stressing that there is a political problem in Kashmir which needs a solution.
However, in spite of this political problem, many economic activities carry along. Export of handicrafts, fruit, and many other items valued at hundreds of crores is never taken to mean return of normal situation. Rather all these economic activities are supposed to be a routine affair. No one says that export of fruit and handicraft items means normalcy has returned to Kashmir. In fact, many other similar activities are never portrayed as signs of normalcy. For some unknown reasons, it is tourism only which is projected as a barometer of political normalcy. There are many spots in the world where there have been upheavals or abnormal situations. However, politicians in those areas never come on TV channels to claim that increased tourism activity signifies return of total normalcy. There is no doubt that the tourism industry in Kashmir constitutes a significant sector in the State's economy especially because of its service related orientation, it is a major employer. Uncertain situation does discourage people from visiting a place. This is especially so when one has many alternatives available. In the present world scenario, there is hardly any place in the world which is totally safe or without any law and order problems.
This holds good even in the western countries where London and New York are quite often on "Security Red Alert". This is truer in the metropolitan cities like Mumbai and Delhi. Still people do not stop visiting these places. For last three years the continuously uncertain situation had given a tremendous set back to tourism. There has been significant loss to the state's economy. Realising this, most of the leaders leading movement for the basic rights of Kashmiris gave statements that the tourists from all over the country and abroad are welcome in Kashmir. They gave assurances that the tourists are totally safe in the valley. These declarations did have an impact on the arrival of the tourists both from within the country and abroad. In fact, the numbers as claimed by tourism officials have already crossed half a million arrivals excluding the pilgrims to holy Amarnath cave. These too have crossed the half a million. Now, the people from the ruling side too seem to feel that the politicisation of tourism has damaged the tourism scenario and highlighting these activities has acted as the proverbial red rag to the bull!
In mid nineties when tourism had started picking up again after a total collapse of about six years or so, there were specific instructions from the Ministry of Home Affairs, New Delhi to all the media channels and others to avoid highlighting tourism activities. However, in the present scenario, it is the Central Officials and Politicians who are highlighting tourism activities as return of normalcy more than the locals. There is a vicious circle and sort of a competition between the Politicians and Officials. Such activities are done purely to take credit for return of so called normalcy by various players. If Omar Abdullah has sincerely felt that there should be no politicisation of tourism, then he has to first rein in his fellow politicians as well as his officials. Next, he has to impress upon Delhi in this regard so that tourism in the state is left undisturbed as a routine economic activity. Let us hope he succeeds in his endeavour in promoting tourism purely as an economic activity.


Thursday, September 15, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-XXIII (Going West in America-II)

The journey to Lake Havasu was truly through the country of Mackena's Gold! Pappoo had planned to take me to Sedona which is known as the Mackena's Gold country and then to Grand Canyon before returning to Lake Havasu. After leaving flagstaff we travelled through some pine forests and mountain country. We stopped at a couple of spots near some mountain streams. It was nice travelling through this picturesque countryside. However, soon we reached dry and barren areas. Deserts and barren brown rock formations. The landscape seen in most of the Wild West movies! Arizona is mostly barren and dry. One gets the impression of being in some part of Ladakh except that there are no high snow clad peaks and glaciers! On the way we also visited an Indian Reservation. The entire life style of Red Indians has been preserved. We saw how the Red Indians used to live in their tents. We also saw the fire places which had been preserved in the original farm. The whole area gave the impression of being in the Red Indian country as we used to see in the movies. In America all such important tourist sights have a "Visitor Centre" at the start. In this Centre, there are brochures, maps, photographs, and also some audio-visuals which give an account of the sight with directions and also its history. One can also buy souvenirs from the Centre. It would be very useful if our tourism officials could also think of similar "Visitor Centres" in different tourist resorts!
The Grand Canyon is a dramatic sight. The extent of the Canyon and its depth are enormous. Going near the edge is quite scary! Recently they have built a glass bridge over which tourists go and look directly down on the Canyon base. There are many agencies which organise rafting trips down the Colorado River in the Canyon. Going down into the Canyon itself is a tough adventure. The Canyon reminds one of the Ladakh region back home but in an upside down manner as the top of the Canyon is all flat!
We went round the Canyon top and had some fantastic views. After a snack type of lunch in a Mexican Restaurant, we went into the I-Max theatre to watch an hour long movie on rafting in the Canyon. It was with 3-D electronic glasses. The movie is very dramatic and with 3-D glasses one gets the feeling of being on the raft itself! Rafting down Grand Canyon is one of the most popular adventure sports and many movies have been made about it. We too have something dramatic and challenging in the field of white water rafting. The Zanskar River gorge is more dramatic and challenging. It is very much frequented by top rafters from all over the world. In winter the same River freezes and it becomes a more difficult challenge of a frozen road also known as Chaddar by the locals.
We reached Lake Havasu late in the evening. Lake Havasu City is on the banks of a big Lake. The lake is quite deep at some places. The water looks blue and beautiful in brown landscape. There are many house-boats on the lake. The jet skis are very popular and there are many competitions held on the lake. Pappoo Sharma had just built a multi-storey condominium complex. He had sold some of the condos and some were still vacant. He was staying in a condo on third floor and he put me up in the condo just opposite his. It was a two room flat complete in all respects. It was ready to live in with all facilities. I would have my meals with Pappoo and his family and then sleep in my condo. I had the choice of making my own breakfast and have tea and coffee whenever I liked. It was like living in a luxury apartment all by oneself!
Pappoo's wife Robyn and daughter Breezy were very glad to see me. A plan was made for my sight seeing programme. We would do boating and jet skiing on Lake Havasu. Next we would go on a two day trip to Las Vegas and finally we would spend two nights in Los Angeles in Robyn's parent's home on my way back to New York. It was quite a hectic programme. We spent two days on the Lake. Pappoo taught me jet skiing and it was real fun. We spent one whole day jet skiing. Next day we did boating with Pappoo's friend. We also spent some time on a house boat owned by Pappoo's friend. These house-boats are like small apartments with front deck and top sitting area. However, these are absolutely no match for the luxury house-boats of Kashmir. The only difference is that house-boats in all lakes or rivers in the west have fool-proof means of sewage disposal while as ours' dump the same into the lake directly! This would constitute a criminal offence on these lakes in the western countries. We also took round of the town and met some other friends of Pappoo. I also got a hair cut at home. Pappoo called his hair dresser and she gave me a nice hair cut at home just for $ 20, which was cheap by local standards. While going through a dress shop, I also bought a dress for my sister in Gibraltar. Strangely, the only good cotton dresses were from India or Sri Lanka. As she already had Indian dresses, so I got one from Sri Lanka. It was odd carrying a present from America for someone in Europe but made in Sri Lanka! In the next episode I will describe our trip to Las Vegas, the American Gambling and entertainment hub.

(To be continued…)

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-XXII (Going West in America-I)

My next visit to America had an interesting background and it also resulted in a lot of trouble for me regarding my job! The International Union of Alpine Associations (UIAA), the apex body in the world overseeing the adventurous sport of mountaineering was holding its next executive council meeting in Flagstaff, Arizona in April, 1996. The members of the Council, usually the heads of mountain federations of different countries are expected to attend the annual meeting. Mr. M S Gill, the then Chief Election Commissioner who was also the President of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation was supposed to attend the meeting on behalf of India. However, as the Parliament elections were scheduled to take place soon, he could not leave the country. He asked me, being the Vice-President, to attend the meeting on his behalf. Accordingly, I applied for earned leave but the same was rejected by the then Chief Secretary because of elections. Mr. Gill spoke to him and my leave was sanctioned. The tickets for the travel were being paid by Air India and the Mountaineering Foundation and I was also entitled to the boarding and lodging expenses for the duration of the meeting which was expected to last for three days. Air India also upgraded me to business class.
The travel was a long one. The flight routing was from Delhi to New York via London. The stop over in London was just for couple of hours. From New York airport (JFK), I had to go to New Jersey airport to catch a flight to Phoenix. I was not familiar with the arrangement. While waiting in the Air India lounge in New Delhi airport I was talking to Anoop Kannaw our Deputy Director in Delhi about the subject when suddenly a gentleman sitting close by came to us. He said he too was a Kashmiri and was Chief Executive of a firm in USA. He offered me to guide me for taking the connecting flight as he too was on the same flight! It was a very nice gesture.
After almost 18 hours of flying we finally reached New York. After immigration and customs I was taken by the recently made friend to the New Jersey airport counter. They told me that I could get a flight only in the morning around eight. I had to stay for the night at the New Jersey airport. I could not make a booking as those days I did not have a global access credit card. In America one cannot do anything without a credit card. I had to take a bus to the New Jersey airport and was picked up there by the van from a hotel where I stayed for the night. Again the hotel receptionist wanted cash in advance as I did not have a credit card! Next morning I took the flight to Phoenix. It was about four hours. In the flight I met another Chief Executive who was going for a golf weekend to Phoenix which had over a dozen excellent golf courses. The said gentleman was so fond of golf that he would come every weekend to Phoenix to play. From Phoenix I had to take a small 12-seater aircraft to Flagstaff. The
flight was quite enjoyable as the plane was flying very low and we could enjoy the scenery. The airport was very small and there were hardly any people inside. To get a taxi, I had to phone from free phone in the airport. Within 20 minutes a lady came in and told me that she would take me to the Flagstaff hotel. It was for the first time I had scene a lady taxi driver! The drive was just for about 20 minutes or so through pine forests and mountain scenery. I checked into the hotel and went straight to bed. I had been now travelling for 22 hours and was suffering severe jet lag! The only engagement that day was dinner at the Flagstaff Club on the hill. So I had the chance of sleeping for few hours. The President of the Pakistan Alpine Club General Amir Gulshan Janjua was also staying in the same hotel. I met him in the afternoon in the lounge when I woke up. I had earlier known his predecessor, General Qamar Ali Mirza. General Janjua invited me to visit Pakistan again. We went together to attend the dinner. We were able to meet mountaineers from many countries during the dinner which was held in the Club on the hill. The council meeting was scheduled to start next morning and continue for two days.
There were around 20 members who had come to attend the meeting. Various agenda items were discussed which related to payment of fees, regulations for climbing and so on. Members were also allowed to raise other issues or move resolutions. I moved a resolution for holding of the next meeting of the Council in Leh, Ladakh. The resolution was admitted for discussion and voting next day. In the evening we were taken to a lakeside restaurant which was in the form of a log hut. It was a very enjoyable evening. Next day there were more discussions. My resolution for a Council meeting in Kashmir was also taken up. Most of the members favoured it as they were keen to see Ladakh. However, in the voting we got 18 votes out of 20. Pakistan abstained but one of the Scandinavian countries voted against us. The resolution was passed and it was decided that the meeting would be held sometime in September that year. The meeting concluded by lunch time and we were given afternoon free to go round Flagstaff town. In the evening a farewell dinner was held in a local hotel. During our stay in Flagstaff we were also taken to see the famous Lowell Observatory. It had been a fruitful meeting for me.
I have a friend in Arizona. It is Gajendra Sharma, the son of Mr G D Sharma of Jammu who has been the former Director Information. Locally he is known as George Sharma as Americans find it difficult to pronounce Gajendra! We know him as Pappoo Sharma. He lives in Lake Havasu, Arizona where he heads a condominium construction company. He had taken a promise from me that after the meeting I would stay with him for a week or so. In fact, next morning he came to Flagstaff in his car to pick me up! It was on his insistence that I had booked my return journey from Los Angeles to New York and the air trip to Flagstaff via Phoenix was only one way! Pappoo took me not only to Lake Havasu but to Grand Canyon, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. I will describe these journeys in next few episodes!
(To be continued…)

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Travels in foreign lands-XXI (Discovering America-IV)

There are many Kashmiri doctors in Buffalo. The ones I had known very well are Dr. Ashraf Sohaf, Dr. Ashraf Balti, and Dr. Yusuf Fazili. I had known Yusuf Fazili from our first trek to Gangabal Lake in 1970 but Ashraf Sohaf I had known right from mid-sixties. We decided to stay with Ashraf Sohaf who, in fact, came to the airport to pick us up. We stayed three days in Buffalo. The first day we spent meeting people. All the Kashmiri residents were glad to see us. We had to decline many offers of dinners and lunches due to paucity of time.
Next day, Dr. Fazili and Dr Sohaf planned my daylong trip to Toronto while my sister had to stay back as she did not have a Canadian visa. Dr. Sohaf's wife would take her around to meet some other Kashmiri ladies. We started very early for Toronto. There is an expressway going all the way to Toronto. The first thing was to see the Niagara Falls which is just on the border between USA and Canada. We went to see the fall from the American side first. The view is really awe inspiring. Huge amounts of water falling over a long stretch with continuous roar. The sight of the fall is quite mesmerising! There are many places to stay in Niagara. After taking a round, we started for the Canadian border. The border crossing was very simple and quick. The immigration officials just checked my Canadian visa and the US I-92 card. The others did not need a Canadian visa being US Residents. We drove on the expressway through green countryside. After sometime we reached the banks of Lake Ontario. In my opinion, it is not a Lake but a small sea! There were some ships moving on the Lake. Toronto is situated on the banks of the Lake Ontario. As we neared Toronto, we could see in the distance the sky scrapper skyline including the famous CN Tower which was supposed to be the highest building in the world at that time. Yusuf Fazili had proposed that we have lunch in the restaurant on top of the Tower. There were also some interesting space travel rides in the basement. However, we first took a round of Toronto city. I saw quite a few Sardar Jis on the sidewalks. Canada has a sizeable population of Sikhs, some of whom are in high places. Around noon we drove into the parking lot of the CN Tower and parked our car in a suitable location.
The lift to the top of the Tower is quick and it affords views of the Lake and the surroundings. At the top of the Tower we went round to have a panoramic view and then found a table in the restaurant. After lunch we descended to the basement to have a ride on the space travel module. The module was shaped like inside of a spacecraft and there was a huge circular screen giving one feeling of sitting inside the craft. The entire show is based on simulated space travel. The programme takes about 45 minutes. In the beginning we were given details of the travel we would be undertaking and also the sights we would see. We were told to fasten seat belts and the spacecraft took off. The feeling while sitting on the chair was quite sensational as the whole module moved and it was like real take off in a spacecraft. The scene all round changes exactly as it would appear in real space travel. We travelled to many planets including the Mars and the Moon. We also travelled through some galaxies. Indeed, it was a worthwhile experience!
After the simulated space travel we went to our car in the parking lot and slept there for almost an hour and a half. Around five in the evening we started back for the Canadian border after having a cup of coffee in the ground floor restaurant. We reached the border when it was getting dark. Before crossing back into USA, we went to see the fall from the Canadian side. They have made tunnels under the fall and one can go right up to the fall. They gave us rain coats as there is a continuous spray inside the tunnels. The view of the fall with lights under it is quite fantastic. The night time view of the fall was the day's climax and we reached back Buffalo late in the evening. Next day, we were invited by Dr. Ashraf Balti for lunch and we also met some other Kashmiri doctors and their families. Back in Boston, we had to split for our travel to London. My uncle and his family were flying direct from Boston to London and then to Islamabad while we had to fly through New York. There was still no trace of the suit case of my sister and she had to undertake the entire travel in just few sets of clothes she had bought in USA.
We stayed in London for a day and said good bye to our uncle and the family. From here we flew to Geneva where Sylvain Saudan received us and took us to Chamonix for couple of days. The ride to the top of Aiguilles de Midi and lunch in the restaurant there was the highlight of the trip. Next we flew from Geneva to Paris where we stayed for a couple of days before taking the flight back home to Delhi. Thus ended my first trip to USA which was full of adventure including some setbacks on account of loss of luggage and the passport. I had discovered America the land but was yet to discover its people which I did in my subsequent travels. In the next episodes I will relate my experiences in the American West!